By Ellen Nimmo
In whom there is no deceit
Have you ever heard the story of when Nathanael met Jesus? It is one of my favorites. It is a very short story, but one that I think about a lot. Nathanael was a friend of Philip whom Jesus had found and instructed, “Follow me.” Philip did. And apparently when you follow Jesus, it doesn’t take too long before you start hoping your friends and family will follow him too; I guess if you truly believe that the Messiah had come that does seem like the natural inclination. Anyway, Philip in turn finds Nathanael and says to him, “We have found of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” (John 1:45)
Nathanael scoffs back, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” (John 1:46) A droll smile to accompany his quip no doubt. You might hear a similar jest in your part of the country, “Oh, she’s from that state? That background. That ethnicity. That family. What good can come from there?” But Philip urges, Hey dude just, “come and see.” You’re not gonna want to miss this (even if he is from Nazareth).
From a distance Jesus sees the men approaching and says of Nathanael, “Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no deceit!” Nathanael answered back, “How do you know me?” Then Jesus says something that turns Nathanael’s world upside down and inside out. He says, “Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.”
Now, we aren’t told exactly what happened under said fig tree. We don’t know if Nathanael was there in prayer, or in sorrow, in turmoil within himself; we don’t know if he was there admiring the tree and praising God for its shade or if he was there with anger in his heart, but Jesus seemed to know something significant about Nathanael’s time under the fig tree. . .and it seems to have struck deep. For as soon as Jesus makes this very strange reply to Nathanael’s question, “How do you know me?” Nathanael changes his whole approach to Jesus exclaiming, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!”
Quite the change from someone who just a short time before was rolling his eyes and saying, “Pah! What good could come out of that town?” What a shift!
Now, whether or not you agree with Nathanael that Jesus is the Son of God, the King of Israel, the Messiah come to save the sinner and seek the lost isn’t my point. But I wanted to share this story today to ease my own heart, settle my own mind a bit. You see, I love this story because I’ve been lucky enough to know a few Nathanaels, and in my experience, what breath of fresh air! In this world which is often layered with deceit, I need Nathanaels in my life to remind me. Here are four things the story of Nathanael reminds me of when I’m under the proverbial fig tree.
- Go and see. If someone I love and trust asks me to, “come and see” I want to be like Nathanael and be a go with gal. Unless I know of some glaring reason not to, I want to maintain an open posture. Sure, Nathanael scoffed, but he went anyway. He didn’t let his preconceived notions about what folks from Nazareth were like stop him from taking another look. It displays his humility and trust for his friend.
- When presented with more or new information, it is OK to change one’s mind. Nathanael does this beautifully. As soon as he hears Jesus’s words about having seen him while he was under the fig tree, something clicks. Something within Nathanael’s mind, heart, and soul is shaken and, perhaps after a beat or two to catch his breath, he stammers in complete affirmation, “You are the Son of God!” Holy switcharoo. It’s as though whatever new information Jesus gave by saying that very intimate, specific thing to Nathanael regarding the moment under the fig tree shifted his entire perspective. He didn’t cling to his notion of Nazarath or the people from it. He didn’t question Philip or criticize Jesus; he submitted entirely to this new reality.
- Jesus sees all. Now, we’ve probably all heard by now the idea that Jesus claimed to be the Son of God. It’s the claim that put him on the cross after all. Whether you personally believe that he was or not is another matter, but what the story of Nathanael reminds me is that Jesus sees me. He knows my comings and goings. He knows when I’m hurting and when I’m tired. He knows the thoughts that run through my head and the desires of my heart. He knows and he sees and I can choose to be like Nathanael and call him King or I can scramble to find 100 reasons why the Son of God couldn’t possibly be from Nazareth or completely know and love me.
- Spoiler alert: Right after Nathanael’s change of heart, Jesus says to him, “Because I said to you, ‘I saw you under the fig tree,’ do you believe? You will see greater things than these. Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man” (John 1:50-51). Say what, Jesus!? It’s as though right after Nathanael realizes just exactly who Jesus is, Jesus bestows on him blessing upon blessing. Although – not like we might expect. Make me rich, Jesus. Give me a great relationship, Jesus. I’d like a nice nest egg for my family, Jesus. Give me the body of an athlete along with all the pizza and beer I can enjoy, Jesus. Nope. Jesus blesses with far greater things. Heavenly things. Things already obtained, but not yet fulfilled. Things of God and not of man.
For the Jew in Jesus’ day, like Nathanael, there was a treasury of scripture that beckoned the people of Israel to be free of deceit. Apparently, God thought deceit unbecoming of his people. Certainly Nathanael, though a rare breed indeed, was nowhere near perfect. No, he blundered, fumbled, fouled and erred, but he did so honestly. And when new information presented itself, he was none-too-proud to stand corrected. To change position, to shift viewpoints, to reexamine what he thought he already knew.
Becoming a person in whom there is no deceit might be harder for some of us than others, but what Jesus promises to those who see him rightly is beyond human measurement. We don’t have the scales for these sorts of blessings. For my part, I’m thankful for this very short story included in the Gospel of John because it reminds me to go and see, to humbly reexamine what I think I already know, to remember that Jesus sees all, and because of this, I can trust that the blessings to come far outweigh the earthly ones I tend to seek first. Under my own fig tree, I wait and believe.
- Psalm 32:2
Blessed is the man unto whom the LORD imputeth not iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no guile.
- Psalm 34:13
Keep your tongue from evil and your lips from deceitful speech.